"My AD&D computer experience stopped a game too soon, as I laid out several weeks' allowance on the first two, Pool of Radiance(PoR) and Curse of the Azure Bonds(CoA). Most of the fun from them was probably because my mother had warned me off paper AD&D as a kid. She'd have been glad to know how ridiculous combats fighting fifty goblins on the Apple got. I assumed a sequel would be bigger-badder-more, and I figured the combat was just something I had to sit through to appreciate the mapping and s..."
My AD&D computer experience stopped a game too soon, as I laid out several weeks' allowance on the first two, Pool of Radiance(PoR) and Curse of the Azure Bonds(CoA). Most of the fun from them was probably because my mother had warned me off paper AD&D as a kid. She'd have been glad to know how ridiculous combats fighting fifty goblins on the Apple got. I assumed a sequel would be bigger-badder-more, and I figured the combat was just something I had to sit through to appreciate the mapping and such. Secret of the Silver Blades(SSB) gets it right. It's a bigger game, keeping the good or tolerable and getting rid of the worst. And, sadly, it came out just after the local Babbage's Apple game shelf vanished. So my mother had the last word for a while--until I got DosBox. Which was handy for a game like SSB, good at the basics before it starts to overemphasize and wallow in them.
SSB's game engine is similar to its predecessors. You have the menu at the bottom of the screen, and you can use arrows/enter or hotkeys to get things done. Then you create a party of six characters, mixing up fighter/cleric/thief/mage classes, and you use the number pad to wheel them around in combat areas that replicate the current corridor you're in. Enemies can run, and so can you, but there's a new feature where the enemy surrenders, which saves all kinds of mop-up work. And there is a lot less silly treasure to sort through. No shortswords and small shields for each goblin you hacked up. There are even twelve save slots, though this isn't new--you can cheat and see if a group of townsmen is really evil, or of that trap really should explode. It's hard to get into a dead-end with the game, but this is extra insurance, and it's needed for some of the longer treks where you might not know where you're going, or you don't want to backtrack to look in a new branch of a big maze.
And even better, your characters start out at level 6 or so, so the main focus at the beginning is how to divide experience among the multiple classes. Or those who played in previous scenarios can transfer characters, and in my opinion, it's the least they deserve. Then you stock up in town(watch for a funny cheat about initial items and a communal pool for several save slots,) and go to the dungeon. Oh yeah, monsters generally outsize your party in combat, which gives a David and Goliath feel, but not really--you have a few new spells to sock them with.
You can mad-lib the plot, pretty much, from previous incarnations. The town to save: New Verdigris, versus New Phlan. The big bad boss to beat: the Dreadlord. The faraway allies: the Silver Blades referenced in the title, who are in fact adventurers and not actual weapons. They're warriors frozen in ice, and you need them for the end fight, mostly as a diversion, but then, it's an interesting part of the strategy. You also have the usual treasonous faction in town--beat them up for lots of fun special treasure. Then there are the random treasure fights in the maze, usually with brief text and a small graphic.
But first you have the Well of Knowledge. It's inside a series of looping corridor, each guarded by progressively tougher dragons. At the far edges, monsters guard teleports to other locations in the big maze. The well is also handy because it can give you hints for gems when you're totally busted--and while the game is a bit more lenient than the first two with player development, it provides a way to make sure your party hasn't run out of combats, and you can keep trying things.
And the big maze? It's huge. 60x90 or so, four graph paper sheets and then some. Bigger than PoR's Phlan, or any other old-school first-person RPG maze I know. Combined with deceptively easy random combats to start, this will inevitably sucker you into staying out a bit too long to get back comfortably. The save-and-reload works, but you can easily get trapped, especially with the one-way doors deeper in the maze. You also have some 16-by-16 rooms off to the side(the usual stuff from the previous AD&D games) but the big cavern is much more effective than the overland map seen in CoA and PoR. Some of the 16x16 castles even act as 8x32, with teleportal doors in the right places. Some of the square mazes are next to each other, and some are on top of each other. These are mixed up well.
You even have a big a sprawling mine in the center of the big cave, with each level having a staff piece for a necessary item. This gets tedious as despite some vague treasures in dead ends and some quick 16x16 areas to advance plot, very little of the cavern is useful. After solving the mine, you have to navigate a very very long corridor, going east from (99,3) to (0,3) as the game drops the hundreds digit. Then it almost does so again.
Oh, the corridor has lots of dead end branches, including some with teleportals it doesn't say kicks you back to the start until--oops, heh, too late. Nice safety valve, but if your party isn't prepared or runs out of spells, that means a lot of backtracking. Then you have to return to town a few times before continuing. It's as if the designers felt morally obligated to put a boring bit in here and there, or force the point that it's best to do more than the bare minimum, in RPGs or in life. Or maybe their civic duty was their way of forcing you to take a break from an otherwise interesting game. Worked for me, especially since I decided to map the thing for a FAQ companion.
SSB's graphics are no-frills too. While you can customize your icons for combat, they're still not very detailed, and the monsters look a little jerky, though you can see the tendrils and limbs of the weirder ones. The various mazes have different interesting walls, and what pictures are there for special encounters look good. As with the plot, SSB has pulled a lot of graphics from the previous games, and they're certainly reliable.
The AD&D games do seem formulated at times, but SSB has probably aged the best, if only for a more interlocked dungeon layout. No other AD&D game has anything like the well and its teleportal egg-hunt to bring a game together. While some of the maps become inane, and some later fights beyond those maps become a hassle, nothing ever grates on you too much. The story does seem a by-product sometimes, as you can get through the game with brute force. Map, kill, loot, return, buy magic stuff, rest up, repeat. And for those curious in the story, it's a bit easier these days to try a bunch of options and restart DosBox. Even with the enhancement, the game's not perfect, but I am glad that emulation made the game more playable to those who needed maps. It's still long and impressive enough to enjoy getting lost in, and a lot of the annoying technical hitched in AD&D are gone.
Community review by aschultz (April 03, 2009)
Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.
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